In small online sf magazine Helix, sf author John Barnes argues that sf is dead of simple old age:

And, to return to the observation that might be the point of all this, the good stuff, the stuff that marks the contribution of the genre to the culture as a whole, tends to fall within that about-three-generation span of life. A side observation is that nearly every genre will have its own pet explanations for why it died; the disappearance of the middle-class spontaneous theatergoer and theatrical unions, the cultural change in personal integrity so that no one really believes “a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do” anymore, girls having better options than becoming nurses and marrying doctors, the generations of civil peace in the nineteenth century draining Gothic novels of their force, and so on and so forth. Science fiction has several versions of this, including rising irrationality, “the world is all science fiction now anyway,” political correctness, political neanderthalism, and “they aren’t like they were when I was a kid.” What I am saying here is this: genres last about seventy years as live things. It was time. Grandma died because she was old, not because you were bad.


Furthermore, the cultural hole that gave rise to the genre is plugged, now — the genre is plugging it and getting better at plugging it every year. And the culture itself is moving on (Westerns flourished when the frontier was still in living memory, and for perhaps a generation after; the disappearance of the frontier is a quaint historical fact now, but it was a thunderclap in the culture of 1930). The surrounding culture just doesn’t feel the old lack nearly as much. The genre is no longer filling a key place in people’s emotional lives; it’s just something they grew up reading/watching/listening to, comfort food for the brain rather than exotic cuisine.

Meanwhile, in national British newspaper The Times, mainstream author and critic Bryan Appleyard argues that sf is more relevant than ever:

The point is that SF is, in fact, the necessary literary companion to science. How could fiction avoid considering possible futures in a world of perpetual innovation? And how could science begin to believe in itself as wisdom, rather than just truth, without writers scouting out the territory ahead? Which is why this widely despised genre should be read now more than ever. Unfortunately, as Aldiss and Brake agree, this does not seem to be a great time for the production, never mind the reception, of SF. The classical age – of Wells, Lem and Dick – seems to be behind us, and the emerging genre of New Weird, led by Britain’s China Miéville, shades too much into fantasy and horror to be strictly classified as SF, a genre that must remain true to a certain level of logic and realism. But one can try Greg Bear, a practitioner of old-fashioned “hard” SF, the kind that, like the work of Michael Crichton, sticks most closely to real current science. Bear’s celebrated Blood Music is a brilliantly horrible vision of genetics gone wrong. Or there’s another Brit, Stephen Baxter, who writes hard SF strongly influenced by HG Wells; or Iain M Banks (Iain Banks’s SF guise), who has written a series of novels about the Culture, an alien civilisation existing in parallel to the human. Banks’s emphasis is more philosophical than strictly scientific, and seems to descend from the supreme practitioner of philosophical SF, Olaf Stapledon, a man incapable of writing about anything less than everything.


But if new hard, logical, shingly-beach SF is now a rarity, at least there’s a lot of old stuff to read. The literary snobs will say it’s badly written, which most of it is. So is most “literary” fiction. Badly written literary fiction is, however, wholly unnecessary. There’s a lot of badly written SF that is driven by an urgent journalistic desire to communicate. That is necessary. So, watch Blade Runner for the seventh time, or curl up with Aldiss’s Omnibus. And remember, it’s all happening now.

Comments: I don’t think the world has turned as topsy-turvy as it first appears, because I don’t think Barnes and Appleyard are talking about the same thing. Barnes is talking about genre sf, and he might have a point about its obsolescence; but he goes too far, because even if the genre is dead that says nothing about the health or otherwise of the larger mode, which is what Appleyard seems to be interested in, even if his contemporary examples are all genre sf writers.

I’m actually almost more interested in Appleyard’s assertion that “this does not seem to be a great time for the production […] of sf”. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure I could stomach referring to Greg Bear as one of the lights in the darkness (although at the same time, comparing him to Michael Crichton seems cruel even to me), and the fact that I’m not actually even convinced there is a darkness, it says something to me that the commentator sitting outside looking in sees a blip, while the commentator sitting inside looking around sees The End.

10 thoughts on “Perspective

  1. Leaving aside the fact that I’m not sure I could stomach referring to Greg Bear as one of the lights in the darkness (although at the same time, comparing him to Michael Crichton seems cruel even to me) …


  2. The Barnes column was interesting, anyway.

    Appleyard perhaps isn’t reading much, or if pulling out Greg Bear is stuck in the 80s, along with his bookshelves. :)

  3. I need to read some Stross…I really do.

    Honestly, I think that the reasons for SF’s decline has more to do with audience than SF itself. SF has simply lost touch with the audience because more and more complex science is being used and, at least in America, our education system is rapidly falling to the wayside. Most people in America, sadly, couldn’t pass 8th grade science if they wanted to. Students at all levels aren’t retaining the knowledge either. My brother, who is in High School now, couldn’t tell me half the stuff I’ve learned about science which were at the level he should be learning anyway. So, as SF gets increasingly more complex scientifically, people are getting less so. I think this might be why the soft science SF stuff will generally do better. But I think people think of SF as being scientifically complex and not ‘fun’. Fantasy sells so much better because you don’t generally have to understand much about the world to understand fantasy. Magic, swords, evil bad guys, it’s all relatively easy to grasp. But quantum physics, general physics, gravity, complex interstellar empires, etc. tend to be beyond most people and somewhat daunting. I think it’s sad, and perhaps I’m wrong on this assertion, but I am always rooting for SF. I love it to death, even the scientific stuff. I’m no science genius, but good SF can take complex science and make it understandable for me. But I’m also a little more scientifically savvy than the average person and I have a friend who’s a science wiz that I can always go to to ask questions.

    I don’t know, though. Maybe I don’t know much about what I’m talking about. It’s just how I see it.

  4. Hmmmm. I have a friend who works in quantum computing and he said that he could never take SF very seriously because he read some of the “hard” SF and found a) the “complex” science pretty daft and b) most of it negative about eeeeeeevil technology. (I don’t remember which authors he mentioned.)

    I am on the outside looking in here but in all the discussions about the “decline” of SF it’s all “people dunno science no more!” and “it’s all politically progressive and people just want to chillax (with kings and trolls)!” These concerns are more easy to explicate and discuss but is anyone concerned about the writing at all: stories and such lowly affairs? It’s always about dragging the poor reading public with you to Mars to face the political dark side and it makes one wonder whether you’re particularly interested in writing/reading engaging fiction.

    Fantasy has never forgotten that. That’s as likely a reason as any for its sales. (Also the trolls, readers want to be farmer-boys-turn-kings-and-fly-dragons, sword fighting, simple evil, and super-duper world building that requires virtually no brain power to understand and has absolutely no application to real life. Just to get all that out of the way.)

  5. It may just be as simple as Barnes being on the wrong side of the Atlantic, in a country that lost its faith in the future and science fiction has retreated in nostalgia and milsf bloodfests.

    British sf on the other hand is booming, with more great new authors coming out than I can keep up with and unhesitant to come to grip with the future, even when it seems grim.

    In China meanwhile there are sf magazines with circulations of well over 100,000.

  6. I guess I don’t see the decline as much as others do and I certainly don’t see SF as an less relevant today than at any other point in time. When I read SF, fantasy, whatever, I am not looking for some great revelation or pontifications on the nature of man and the universe….I am looking for what Imani describes as “engaging fiction”. Now I personally believe that there are good stories out there that even fall into the patterns that she describes, but that may just be me.

    I find the tendency of those who write long essays about these type of things to be looking for something brand new and revelatory to be a bit off the point. That is because I read for entertainment. If I want to garner some great wisdom I’ll pick up some nonfiction. And occasionally I will be surprised and moved and have my eyes opened by fiction as well. I think those experiences have as much to do with me as a reader and where I am at in my life when I’m reading the book as it does with the way the book is written.

    In the end what I am getting at is that I tend to poo-poo the idea that genres of fiction are no longer relevant, etc. We live in a world where not only are we open as reader’s to future-thinking, forward progressing science fiction, but there is also a market for “old style”, “throwback” science fiction that appeals to those who find classic, “outdated”, science fiction to be a nostalgic and entertaining experience.

    It also seems very presumptious to me to believe that because science is so advanced that we now have it all figured out and so science fiction is irrelevant. I tend to not believe that we’ve reached out zenith as a people and that we have a long way to go.

    In the end I will keep reading what I like and be entertained and I hope there will be a great many authors who continue to write entertaining, engaging science fiction as I certainly don’t think I’m alone.

  7. Tell that to some of the new writers of science ficiton. It isn’t dying it is being partially absorbed into near future thrillers partially William Gibson recently wrote Spook Country for example.

    Also, because many of the bookstores and places that people gathered are dying does not mean the genre is dying. There are still very strong publishers, Tor and Baen to name a few. But, they aren’t literary in nature.

    Also many of the authors who are writing science fiction that are new live in a world that is tied in with technology. Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross are both computer people. Wil Mccarthy also writes technology oriented mysteries.

    I also think people are not looking at some of the better writers that are taking the place of people like Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov. Jack McDevitt is really excellent for hard science fiction writing.

    Science fiction as space opera is dying, not the more interesting near feature hard science fiction. In my opinion, it is a good thing that Star Trek went off air for example. Now, we have some more interesting things to take its place. I think SG-1 is much better, because it shows how the present meets the imagined future.

  8. Too tired to comment on this thread in the detail it deserves, but —

    Nick: My first thoughts were Geoff Ryman and Kim Stanley Robinson, but Stross works too.

    Imani: I am far from convinced that sf has somehow forgotten how to be engaging fiction. But that’s a whole other post. :)

    Nishan: “Science fiction as space opera is dying, not the more interesting near feature hard science fiction.” — it’s interesting you say this, since I’ve seen people argue the exact opposite, that near-future sf is the rarity. Which is probably as good a metric of health as any, to be honest.

  9. Oh, I don’t think SF has forgotten either. Or rather, I don’t know since I don’t read it (much) but I wouldn’t assume it had. I rarely buy into the various “death of…” that get recycled every few months and Martin Wisse’s comment seemed to be a pretty reasonable observation. I’ve always been pretty wary of the genre, though, because it (the fans? writers?) seem to have a kind of messianic complex about its relevance to society.

    You should do that whole other post. Maybe if more SF readers said, “Hey, the stories are awesome; don’t worry about the made-up science, good writers will make it understandable” instead of “It’s all quantum physics, nanotechnology and political theories up in here which, if you cannot handle, I got a dragonlance book for you” there wouldn’t be such a decline (if there is at all). Many SF and “literary” fiction fans work very hard at making their books sound like brussel sprouts. :P

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